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Spartan Existence

Coach Dave Baldwin Plans to Turn Around the Struggle San Jose State Program Like He Did at Northridge

September 17, 1997|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JOSE — Two weeks into the season and San Jose State looks pretty much like the second-worst team in the nation.

With bright flags flapping in the breeze and the band playing, "Hail, Spartans, Hail," the team stumbled through its home opener Saturday, losing 56-10 to Wisconsin in a game that was not as close as the score implies.

The receivers dropped passes. The defense was too slow and too small to stop Heisman Trophy-candidate Ron Dayne, who rumbled for 256 yards and three touchdowns in little more than a half.

All in all, the Spartans played like a team one national magazine ranked 111th of 112 teams.

So who was that man rushing around afterward, shaking hands and patting butts, kissing his wife, lingering on the field until every player was gone?

It was the San Jose State coach.

"I'm not panicking," he told a roomful of reporters a few minutes later. "I went through this at Northridge."

It was last season that Dave Baldwin led the previously woeful Matadors to a startling 7-4 record and a No. 26 ranking in the Division I-AA polls.

Now he steps up to Division I-A and a program that is similarly desperate for respect. San Jose State has won 11 games in the past four seasons and, once again, is picked to finish near the bottom of the Western Athletic Conference.

But those who know Baldwin are not surprised he has blown into Northern California on a gust of optimism.

His beaming face--a grin that emerges from beneath a full mustache--graces the cover of the Spartan media guide. He has made the rounds of alumni brunches and Kiwanis Club meetings and every TV and radio show that will have him.

"We're going to win the WAC in four years," Baldwin is wont to say. "That is our passion."

Even after two defeats--the Spartans began the season with a 28-12 loss at Stanford--San Jose fans seem to be eating this stuff up.

"He's what this area needs," said Greg Steward, an alumni club member who joined the tailgaters outside Spartan Stadium before the game last week. "He's got an exciting style and that's what college football should be all about."

Even the players are sold.

"We all know the fight song now," said Donte Scarbrough, a junior tailback and Kennedy High alum. "I never even knew we had a fight song."

One of Baldwin's former assistants chuckles and calls it "smoke and mirrors." But in the next breath, Jeff Kearin, who stayed with the Matadors, insists there is a method to the merriment.

"Kids are kids," Kearin said. "They want to play."

Over the past decade, Baldwin has shown a knack for getting them to play above their heads. He revived the football programs at Santa Barbara City College in 1991 and at Santa Rosa Junior College in 1994.

At Northridge, the Matadors went 2-8 his first season. Then, with the team joining the Big Sky Conference, Baldwin molded a group of junior-college transfers into one of the top offenses in Division I-AA and came within one victory of a playoff berth.

In each case, he inherited a team where the morale was as low as the talent level.

Baldwin ignored the prevailing wisdom that it takes a disciplinarian to whip a losing team into shape. His cure: give the players a gambling, attacking game plan and let them have some fun.

His offense lines up with four and five receivers at a time. The quarterback throws slants. The backs run draws and quick-hitters.

"The kids pick it up pretty quickly and they get excited when they start moving the ball," Kearin said. "Also, it's an offense where you can have a lot of success without having a John Elway at quarterback or a bunch of horses on the line."

The defense is predicated on blitzes and man-to-man coverage. Baldwin challenges his cornerbacks: "Hey, it's one-on-one and the whole stadium knows it. We're going to make some mistakes but we're also going to make some big plays."

This approach is calculated to generate emotion on teams that lack raw talent.

"A lot of fire, a lot of energy," said Aaron Flowers, the quarterback Baldwin left behind at Northridge. "Players like to play on his teams because they like to play that type of offense and defense."

Flowers helped turn things around for the Matadors, passing for 3,540 yards and 30 touchdowns last season. Baldwin said last week: "If we had Aaron Flowers, I believe we would have beat Stanford."

San Jose State must suffice with Brian Vye, a much-traveled transfer who so far this season has proven tough but inconsistent. The team also lacks size on the line and, even more important, speed.

A tough WAC schedule begins at Wyoming next week and the Spartans could be in for a long season. Baldwin is flush with the honeymoon new coaches enjoy, but knows the stakes are higher than they were at junior college or Northridge.

Spartan home games draw 20,000, five times the average Matador crowd. San Jose State boasts a rich tradition--it has sent dozens of players to the NFL and was ranked 20th in the nation as recently as 1990.

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